‘It’s unreal’ – Cameron Smith scoops golf’s richest prize at 2022 Players Championship golf with Sawgrass magic show

Cameron Smith emulated an array of Australia’s finest players from yesteryear to win a marathon 49th Players Championship at storm-ravaged Sawgrass in the fading light of a fifth day at golf’s richest tournament.

The 28-year-old Brisbane professional emulated Steve Elkington (1991 and 1997), Greg Norman (1994), Adam Scott (2004) and Jason Day (2016) by becoming the latest figure from Down Under to finish on top at Ponte Vedra Beach in Florida, the outpost where he usually resides in the US.

Despite playing some fabulous shots to sign for a closing six-under 66 – that included 10 glorious birdies and a memorable two at the iconic par-3 17th island hole – a nervy bogey at the 18th saw him fall back to 13 under and leave the door ajar with India’s Anirban Lahiri a shot adrift playing the last.

Fresh from a 12-foot birdie on 17, Lahiri had the chance to force a play-off as Smith watched anxiously on a TV screen in the clubhouse, but was relieved as the World No 322 – the surprise third-round leader on nine under from Monday morning before a wildly undulating fourth round unfolded – saw his chip shot come up agonisingly short.

“It’s unreal. A long, hard week and so nice to come out on top. This is one of the big ones. It’s nice to get it done,” said Smith, who was reunited with his mum Sharon and sister Mel after a two-year wait due to Covid travel restrictions in Australia.

“They came over last week, and golf really took a back step, I guess. I hadn’t seen them for so long and all I wanted to do was hang out with them. It’s so cool to get a win for them.”

England’s Paul Casey finished with a commendable 69 to end his week in sole ownership of third place on 11 under.

It was perhaps fitting that the more traditional Florida sunshine came out to greet the field on the enforced fifth day of the $20m event after almost biblical weather conditions wrecked the first three days amid rain delays, thunderstorms, gusting winds and plummeting temperatures.

Smith treated the galleries to a wonderful exhibition of shot-making yet still found enough trouble to keep the field interested on the 40th anniversary of the Players at Sawgrass.

Sporting a Merv Hughes moustache and the same amount of aggression as the Aussie fast bowler in his pomp, he was as hot as a Gold Coast beach in starting with four straight birdies before adding a fifth on the sixth to move rapidly to 12 under.

Three bogeys blighted his round on the seventh, eighth and nine to reach the turn on nine under alongside Casey with former US PGA winner Keegan Bradley progressing to 10 under alongside Lahiri, who later consoled himself with a staggering $2.18m as runner-up.

“Of course, of course. I want to win. I’ve been here seven years; haven’t gotten over the line yet. That’s definitely a monkey I want to get off my back. Today was as good an opportunity as any,” he said.

“I guess at one point on 16 I thought it was kind of out of reach, but then again, birdieing 17, Cam kind of opened the door.

“But I gave it a good go. Made some mistakes today that I could have avoided, but that’s golf. I picked up a few shots, too, so I’m happy.

“This is a really positive week for me going forward.”

Smith’s response was absolute when he could have wilted mentally as he redoubled his efforts with birdies on 10, 11, 12 and 13 carrying him back into the lead and seemingly stuck on for first prize.

With Casey enjoying birdies on the 11th and 12th to remain in contention, the Ryder Cup player was left with untimely bad fortune on the par-5 16th hole as his ball landed in a divot to prevent him from attacking the hole with his second and Smith’s lead.

“I just played a really, really good round of golf in difficult conditions around Sawgrass,” said Casey. “Shot 69 with maybe one bogey and some breaks that didn’t go my way.

A birdie from four foot at the 17th was cheered wildly by the locals and the World No 10 steadied himself to make five on 18 after prodding his ball short of the green and into the water with his second shot before Lahiri joined Casey, Bradley and several others in wondering what might have been.

“Although it was probably the right decision, the shot was pretty poor,” added Smith about the 18th hole shenanigans. “I thought it was going to come out a bit soft and a bit tumbly and just come out really good and ran through into the water.

“Really held it together there and got up-and-down for bogey.”

With 13 single putts over 18 holes, Smith’s late mishap should not detract from his status as a deserving champion under intense heat of the PGA Tour’s flagship event.

Collecting the sport’s richest prize of $3.6m (£2,746,800) and the golden Players trophy is just reward for sprinkling the course with gold dust.

Viktor Hovland enjoyed a hole-in-one on the par-3 8th hole while Dustin Johnson equalled the course record with a 63 to join the Norwegian on seven under, but out of contention after the ruinous previous few days.

For some, the ruins came later with World No 1 and pre-tournament favourite Jon Rahm concluding with a 77 to finish on plus two in a share of a lowly 55th spot.